A Teenie Studio, Final Project (prior: Hill District)

For my final project, I expanded the scope of interest from imagery of the Hill District to the Teenie Harris archive as a whole. Specifically, my focus became Teenie’s studio practice, which included a large set of photos in front of a single large white circle backdrop.

studio_practice_examplesTo my knowledge, there is no other photographer who maintained this practice. Thus, within his studio, the white circle became Teenie’s “signature.” Many of the individuals pictured in these photographs have passed away and few remain to this day who can relate their stories of Teenie, the atmosphere he created, and what he meant to Pittsburgh communities.

So, I set out to find new meanings in his imagery and his traditions by bringing them back to life in the heart of Pittsburgh today. By engaging others, I hoped to discover new ways of understanding his images and together, develop new customs and forms of meaning around the studio photograph. Hence, a Teenie Studio—a portable, interactive photo studio in the spirit of Teenie Harris.

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With the help of Joanna McAllister, we set set up a studio in downtown Pittsburgh, at the corner of Liberty Ave and Strawberry Way, in the alley on the side of SPACE Gallery.

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The setup was as such: A web camera attached to a tripod would send live video to the projector, which projected on the wall opposite the “studio wall.” This not only allowed subjects the ability to see themselves projected large, but, coupled with jazz playing loudly through our speakers, entreated passerby’s to approach and partake in the experience. Once someone would agree to have their photo taken, we would tell them about Teenie Harris, show them some of his own photographs, and escort them to the “studio,” where they would be instructed to stand in front of the big white circle. We would hold up a small black touch-activated “clicker,” made from a Makey Makey, build up the excitement and count to three. 1… 2… 3… Cheese! Once their photo was taken, the projected image would flash white and their photo would appear inside a thin white frame. After a few seconds, it would drop from the screen and fall into the small table monitor. Here, they were able to input their email and have their photo sent to them immediately. We would thank them for their time and let them go on their way.

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Here is a demo of the projected, monitor, and reference imagery:


In response to our efforts, we got mixed reactions. Some individuals were excited about what we were doing and were openly willing to participate and play. However, others were weary and skeptical of our intentions. After all, we were in a back alley asking people to take their photos. Looking back, I think there could have been a few small adjustments that would have served to legitimize us tenfold. For example:

– We brought a full lighting kit, but didn’t set it up because the web camera worked well enough in low light and we didn’t have enough room in the alley if cars were driving by. Even if we hadn’t used the lights, they would have been wonderful props, helping create a atmosphere and a defined studio space, inside of which you were allowed to be fun, crazy, etc.

– Asking for people’s emails is efficient for digitally sharing imagery, but raises privacy concerns for those providing the email. Had I bought or borrowed a printer, there would be much fewer privacy concerns, since the subject would only have a to take a piece of paper with them.

– We got a variety of people to participate, but there weren’t as many walking the streets as we had hoped. Even though it was a Saturday night, the streets were quiet. With better planning and knowledge of Pittsburgh events, we could have a built a more vibrant, participatory experience.

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Here are a few of the “studio photographs” we took, in classic black and white:

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Each image tells a different story, each uniquely Pittsburgh but all in some way the same. Represented here is a sample of Pittsburgh that passed through our space during a specified period of time. There is a bias to the community presented here: generally young white professionals. If the heart of culture today is Downtown Pittsburgh, how has the city changed? What might its portrait look like? What will its portrait be in 20 years time?

These are questions that Teenie Harris asked many decades ago when he captured the essence of African American life in and around the Hill District—at the crossroads of the world. I think it’s important to keep asking these questions, comparing where we’ve been with where we want to go, as neighborhoods change and the character of spaces evolve. I continue to struggle with recontextualizing this imagery, but hope this exploration shines a small amount of light on all the possibilities this archive still holds. After all, to continue moving forward, we must know where we have been.

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This project initially began as a series of recreations of Teenie Harris’s exact style of photographing buildings, with particular interest to religious structures that still exist to this day. Here’s visual documentation of those explorations leading up to this final project execution:

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Openframeworks code for projecting a small studio here.

Many thanks to Ali Momeni, Illah Nourbakhsh, Colter Harper, Joanna McAllister, and the Carnegie Museum for their help and support.

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